Here is an excerpt from my latest book NOVEL IDEAS
Ben Marcus, in ‘Why Experimental Fiction threatens to destroy publishing,
Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it’, identifies what he calls the
‘reader’s muscle’ – Wernicke’s area, in the left temporal lobe of the brain –
which is responsible for complex linguistic abilities. This muscle needs to
be exercised if it is to keep our cognitive abilities sharp and growing and
keep our language agile enough to engage with the world around us in a
focused way. Marcus argues that it is literary fiction (and poetry) that
invigorates this muscle:
Literary language is complex because it is seeking to accomplish
something extraordinarily difficult: to engrave the elusive
aspects of life’s entanglements, to represent the intensity of
consciousness, to produce the sort of stories that transfix and
mesmerize (Marcus, 2005, p. 39).
The brain is, literally and metaphorically, as big as the universe in that it
contains as many neurons as there are stars and neural pathways that are virtually infinite. If we stare up at the Milky Way, we are seeing what our brain (our ‘self ’) looks like in all its vast wonder. By reading and writing innovative fiction, we are literally going on a Star Trek, exploring new worlds and time and space travelling. This kind of travel, I believe, prevents brain atrophy, makes new neural connections and creates intelligence, meaning making, and self-actualisation. Far from being ‘elitist’ and obscure, literary and experimental/innovative fiction is doing a fundamental job: activating and exercising our brains. As writers, we have important work to do. The novel is an exciting and ever-changing phenomenon that by its very nature is innovative and disruptive and dares us to constantly remodel
our thinking and express ourselves in ways that allow our humanity to emerge in all its complexity and wonder.
The history of the novel is one of increasing awareness of our consciousness, of human potential, and of connection to others and the world around us. It challenges atrophied thinking and the
status quo and embraces change.
Genre fiction is often a refuge from change, a reassurance that the world is as we see it, but genre fiction pushes boundaries and peels back layers of deception and false appearance to allow the ‘truth’ of what is underneath to emerge. The innovative novel simultaneously builds on and breaks with tradition. It both inhabits and questions the boundaries of literary fiction and genre. It unsettles and stimulates and is not afraid of experimentation and
discomfort. It breaks rules and invents new ones. It asks us to examine ourselves and reimagine our world, it takes risks, it is playful with language, and it performs a glittering dance with language. In taking up the vocation of novelist, we join the great community of writers and artists through the ages who have grappled with meaning and self and other.
In this book, I have sampled only a few possibilities and led you along my personal journey of discovery. You will create your own paths. You can reverse time and visit the future and be other selves. Every time the novel is declared dead, it is reborn. Perhaps this is what a novel is, a process of reincarnation, an ever-evolving form that reflects our evolving consciousness and leads the way to further possibilities of the self.
Turning to a Life of Crime by Paul Williams
Whenever I tell any of my friends who do not read crime fiction that I’m writing crime/ horror novels about serial killers, they look at me strangely. Why crime? What is so appealing about writing about murder and perverted serial killers?
I think crime fiction performs a set of vital functions in society, not just entertainment or voyeuristic fascination with evil. Stephen King said about horror movies (and this is equally applicable to crime fiction) that they were quite conservative in nature: we expose evil to punish it, to destroy the monsters hiding under our beds or in the darkness, so that we can cleanse our society, so that justice will be served and good will win. The satisfying end to a good thriller/ horror/ crime novel is when the baddie is killed in the most horrific manner possible, and we cheer in grim elation. Is this, King asks, the equivalent of a public lynching or an ancient Roman circus? Are we that blood thirsty? In a way, yes. But it is a type of catharsis, or purification and purgation of strong emotions—we feel relief, that all is right with the world once evil has been exposed and defeated.
But we also read crime not to destroy the monster, but to keep it alive. King suggests that the job of a horror movie/ crime novel is not to rid ourselves of evil, but to ‘lift a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throw a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.’ Crime/ horror acknowledges that we have a dark side, and we need to feed it to ‘keep [the alligators] down there and me up here’ (King, S 1980 Why We Crave Horror Movies).
We’re talking Freud’s and Lacan’s ‘unconscious’ here, the unchecked id, the darkness of our own civilisation that if denied and repressed, grows into a bigger monster. Crime fiction allows it to come to the surface. We let the wriggling monsters emerge and look at them in fascination and horror, examining all the details, the cruel teeth, the tentacles, the evil eyes, the predatory nature of their desires, in recognition that these monsters are us. We have a dark side, and it is better to acknowledge it than to repress it.
Crime, I would argue, by showing us the underbelly of our neat, prim, civilisation, is more honest than other fiction.
But that does not quite explain the voyeurism that is associated with crime fiction. Recently the Ted Bundy tapes were shown on TV, and a movie based on his life aired, and was the most watched on TV. Our attention given to such a monster seems almost like… admiration. Here is someone who flouted the rules of civilisation, who followed his predatory nature without restraint. Is there some primeval attraction to evil?
In Twelve Days, I write about strong unchecked emotions –particularly revenge. Revenge is a basic drive, an urge to get even, to restore justice. The novel is driven by such primitive emotions. But the novel also comes from a more primeval dark space than simply the need to obliterate enemies – what I call the numinous, the unknown, the uncanny.
As a child I visited an old Italian castle in Rossena, Italy and will never forget the dark feelings it evoked in me. It was set high on a mountain to keep enemies at bay with high walls, and a lookout tower that had collapsed into rubble where it was rumoured a secret passage led from the main castle as an escape route. The castle was riddled with dark cold passageways, a dungeon for prisoners complete with iron bars, and rings attached to the walls. I felt its horror and the cruelty that had occurred here over the centuries. I found some friends my age who were also staying here (the castle was let out as a holiday pensione) and our way of dealing with this sense of horror was to play at being torturers, at being tortured, and inflicting pain on others , and being killed, at killing.
I will never forget that primitive raw numinous, uncanny feeling of the place. Now as an adult I can play in it again, using words now and plot, turning that horror, that numinous feeling into story and dealing with it that way. Do I feel better after writing about the monsters hidden in the dark crevices of our souls? Yes, and I hope that readers too will experience the same catharsis reading the novel as I did when writing it.
Welcome to our Q&A with Paul Williams!
🤓 Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
👨🦰 I was born in Epsom, Surrey, but have no memory of England because when I was three months old, my parents moved to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and I spent a lot of my childhood ‘wild’, playing barefoot outside in the bush most of the time. I also spent a lot of my time reading, mostly mystery and adventure novels. I always wanted to be a writer and wrote ceaselessly. Only as I grew older I realised that my parents had inadvertently moved to a country that was in a civil war. I grew up witnessing immense social and political upheaval, lived through a bitter war, followed by a socialist revolution. I wrote about this in my memoir Soldier Blue (2007), about how I was reluctantly conscripted to fight in a war not of my choosing. After the war, I worked in the newly independent Zimbabwe as a radio DJ, but as the country slowly edged into economic collapse, I chose exile, along with three million other Zimbabweans. Since then have travelled the world, looking for a place to call home - the USA, UK, Middle East and now Australia where I head the Creative Writing programme at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
🤓 What is your favourite quote? And why?
👨🦰 At the moment it is a quote by Stephen King about the process of writing:
"I don't feel like a novelist or a creative writer as much as I feel like an archaeologist who is digging things up and being very careful and brushing them off and looking at the carvings on them. … The thing is, for me, I never get all that stuff out unbroken. The trick and the game and the fun of it is to see how much of it you can get. Usually you can get quite a lot."
(King, S, 1991, Writer's Digest, Sept. 16)
I like the quote because it shows how much writing comes from the unconscious. I feel that even if I plan and plot, I discover a lot about the story and the characters only in the act of writing, and my job as a writer is to allow the story and characters to emerge without forcing them.
🤓 What is the one book you wish you had written?
👨🦰 There are many books I wish I had written, from classics such as The Great Gatsby to postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, but recently I keep returning to Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption. It is only a novella, a short story even, and very different to the movie which everyone knows, but it brilliantly captures what Joseph Campbell calls the hero’s journey, and satisfies the need for justice against oppression at a deep metaphorical level. As a reader you follow the protagonist’s struggle from unjust imprisonment to his ‘redemption’ and it is sheer genius plot-wise how he escapes. (The film has a few inside jokes too that you only get if you have read the story: for example, why is Morgan Freeman’s name ‘Red’?)
🤓 Who was your favourite childhood author?
👨🦰 I think I read every single Enid Blyton book, and more than once! From an early age I wanted to be a writer like her. I particularly loved her mysteries – The Secret Seven, then as I grew older, the Famous Five, the Five Find-Outers and Dog, the Barney mystery series. I still (confession!) sometime go back and read Enid Blyton, just to recapture that childhood wonder, and of course I have read all her work to my son. I still have some of those Macmillan hard back copies.
🤓 What fuels you through long stretches of writing?
👨🦰 The story drives me on. The characters insist on being written. I can almost hear them say -Come on Paul we need to get on with this story! They take a life of their own. So I write furiously every day, early mornings mostly, trying to get the story out, sometimes incoherently, and have to go back and correct the spelling and grammar and typos.
Long stretches at the computer lead to sore necks and aching backs so I try to take breaks. I am fortunate enough to live on the Sunshine Coast in Australia so every few hours I go swim, walk on the beach, climb a mountain to balance such a sedentary life. That helps me go the distance. And walking in nature gives me ideas so I always carry a notebook with me in case I get that perfect first line or scene while I’m at the beach. I write regularly, and give myself a target of 1000 words a day. It does not seem much, but it is surprising how quickly those words add up over the weeks, and the momentum grows. John Braine once said write your first draft at ‘white hot speed’, just to get the story out while it flows. Then you can go back and edit it and fix up plot holes, etc.
🤓 Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you get over it?
👨🦰 Yes, I get writer’s block, especially when I start writing something without really planning it well. If I get an idea and start writing straight away, I soon hit a wall and have to stop and figure out how to go around it. Sometimes it takes days or I have to reverse and start again. Apparently Lee Child writes like this, figuring out the story as he goes along, and sometimes he gets painfully stuck. I prefer Ian Rankin’s method- to plot every scene and character beforehand so I don’t get stuck. It does not always go to plan, and shouldn’t always, but at least I have a roadmap.
Writer’s block also happens when I don’t feel confident about my writing and don’t believe in it. Self doubt cripples writing. I have given up on novels too quickly, only later to realise that they were good, but that I was just too close to them to see how to finish them. If I feel blocked, one way I have found is to just write the novel to the end, and inevitably I find my way. Writing sometimes leads me out of holes and dead ends. If get stuck on one section, I go and write another section, even the ending of the novel, and then come back to the part I was stuck in and often it unblocks.
Another way to combat writer’s block is to read. I grab as many crime novels as I can find on my Kindle and read, just for fun, for pleasure, for the joy of reading, and this gets me inspired again. Soon I am itching to get back and write my novel again.